March 18, 2014 - 2:49 PM
WASHINGTON - U.S. authorities say 14 men have been charged with operating an online child-exploitation network that preyed upon hundreds of boys in the United States, Canada and overseas.
Law enforcement officials say the arrests were part of a worrisome trend in which children are being enticed into posting sexually explicit images of themselves, and then those images are broadly shared online.
In this case, authorities say users of an underground network posed online as girls to persuade boys into sharing child pornography images with them.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says the alleged perpetrators preyed upon the most innocent, most vulnerable members of the society with no regard to the immediate or lasting harm they caused to their victims and their families.
The 250 victims were spread across 39 states and five other countries — Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. Most were boys between 13 and 15. Two victims were 3 or younger.
Authorities did not immediately respond to a request for more information on the alleged Canadian victims.
The images and videos were shared on an underground website on the Tor network, an online anonymity network that masks the location of servers and conceals an Internet user's location. The subscription-based website operated from about June 2012 until June 2013 and had more than 27,000 members and 2,000 online videos, authorities said.
Police have opened more than 300 investigations into potential subscribers of the website: 150 in the United States and 150 overseas.
Investigators said they anticipate ongoing arrests and additional identification of victims.
Eleven of the 14 men, including the man authorities say was the administrator of the network, are being prosecuted in Louisiana. The other three are being charged in New York, Colorado and Wisconsin.
Authorities accuse Jonathan Johnson of Abita Springs, La., of being the leader of the operation. They said he admitted creating multiple fake female personas from his home and encouraged others to do the same in an effort to entice boys to produce sexually explicit images of themselves.
Court papers show Johnson was charged last month through a criminal information, a document that can only be filed with an accused's consent. It signals a guilty plea.
A lawyer for Johnson did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.
The investigation was led by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
News from © The Associated Press, 2014